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A Silk Road Mousetrap?

By Susan Whitfield 16 July 2013

In 2004 during the British Library Silk Road exhibition, I showed this wooden implement from Niya (Cadota) on the Southern Silk Road and described it as a mousetrap following M. Aurel Stein’s description. In Ancient Khotan (376) he says that it ‘was recognized by the men from Niya as a mouse-trap, similar to those still in use.’ However, I have long been puzzled as to how it functioned, but Janken Myrdal, Professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, has sent me a plausible explanation. He writes:

‘The narrow end has a small hole, probably for the peg which held the bowstring, the peg that was connected to the bait and thus was released when the prey tried to take the bait. The bow was probably attached to the four small holes just before the round opening. The arrow was arranged under the bow, and run in the channel (as suggested by Stein).

The bait must have been placed over the opening, so the mouse (or probably a rat, as diameter of opening is c. 5 cm) had to stick its head into the opening. The small holes on the other side of the opening were probably for the stand holding the bait, with a connection to the peg that held the bow-string.

A guess is that the arrow had a tip with a straight end. Then this trap would function as a guillotine chopping off the head of the rat quickly and silently – there was no time for the mouse/rat to squeal. This would explain the opening where the rat has to place its head and the channel where the bow had to run an exact path.’

Line drawn diagram, in which the triangular trap incorporates an arrow nocked in a bow.
Diagram showing the original loaded mousetrap. Janken Myrdal.

‘I found mention of a similar trap (the arrow did not go under the bow though) used in Japan, and because the rat made no sound at all on its death the author had caught as many as seven rodents in an evening – but had to remove the bodies fast. If other rats realized that it was a trap they would not try to take the bait.’ (John Batchelor. Ainu Life and Lore. Tokyo: Kyobunkwan 1927).

Many thanks to Janken for this. He also suggests that testing could be carried out for traces of blood in the hole.


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